Tuesday, December 15, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 15, Nicole Sheets on Joanna Eleftheriou's This Way Back




In my youth, December was an escalating series of carols until—boom—we hit Christmas Eve and its candlelit choruses of “Silent Night.” When I discovered the season of Advent as an adult, it made so much more sense to me. I can’t possibly be jolly from Thanksgiving until Christmas. That’s too much to ask of anyone. 
     I love Advent’s dirgelike hymns, such as the plaintive “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Advent is somber, reflective, quiet—all of the things that the holiday soundtrack at Walgreens is not. Advent affirms that yes, the days are very dark, especially here in the inland Northwest, and we don’t have to pretend otherwise. 
     The play of light and dark is one of the most compelling features of Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back. If 2020 has been a landlocked year for you, as it has been for me, I would read this book for the scenes of Cyprus alone. Eleftheriou lived in New York until her father moved the family back to his native Cyprus when she was 10, “so that the children will know who they are” (125), a refrain that echoes through these linked essays. Eleftheriou is tethered to both countries and pulled between them, a tension that animates the book. 
     Eleftheriou opens up Cyprus to us, her Cyprus, which she describes with exuberance: “[E]ven as I spend winter after winter in America,” she writes, “the Cyprus of carob, terebinth, and cyclamen pulls me. I feel that I know who I am through this yearning—for the churning of seas, the light of the sun, the slope of a rock, the lift of a wave” (80-1). Cyprus is also a place that held its first pride parade in 2014, which Eleftheriou watches online from the U.S. Cyprus is a place where Eleftheriou hides the pride pin on her backpack while browsing a shop owned by the Orthodox Church.
     “[H]uman desire is a rope, one braided with thickly conflicting wants,” Eleftheriou warns from the first essay (12). Knowing who she is means unwinding that rope to study the strands. Perhaps no wants are more thickly conflicted than God and sex. The book chronicles, among other things, Eleftheriou’s slow process and high stakes of recognizing herself as a lesbian. It means that she angles her laptop so that her mother won’t see its rainbow sticker. It means nurturing secret crushes. It means visiting Lesbos in her late 30s, hoping the trip would “work sort of like training wheels for my baby gay self” (217). Identifying as a lesbian means that an Orthodox priest labels her as not sinful exactly, but deformed. “I still go to church,” Eleftheriou explains. “It is hard to walk in there every week and be thought of as incurable or unwilling to be cured. But if I disappear from the church, what good is done? I lose my God, and my church loses its one gay woman” (183). What does it mean, she asks, to be gay and Orthodox? Eleftheriou’s is a voice that speaks from the Venn diagram’s tiny ellipse.
     Even as Eleftheriou unwinds the strands of desire’s rope, she also entwines what’s been separated: the mind, the soul, and the body. In her unforgettable essay “Cyprus Pride,” Eleftheriou claims “that there isn’t love without body, that there isn’t person without body, that this soul I used to associate with love isn’t real without the reality of bodies, of desire. I wasn’t just scared of being gay—I was scared of the body that responded to women’s beauty in ways my mind could not control” (195-6). 
     For all its pain and hard truths, This Way Back is a book of great tenderness. I fear that I’m making it sound like a downer, when the impression that stays with me is one of unshakable joy. In these essays, Eleftheriou runs, dances, sings, swims, harvests carobs. In one of my favorite essays, “The Temple of Zeus,” Eleftheriou serves sandwiches to professors and fellow students at Cornell. It is the most poetic, upbeat description of a work-study job I have ever read. She celebrates the manual labor of the café, the “give-and-take of food” as a place of safety, of confidence, an expected entrance into the “insides of the intellectual labor, and to the secret rooms of thought” (97). Now a professor herself, Eleftheriou telegraphs to students in her office that “we are lucky. We can masquerade as people slogging away to get three credits…We don’t have to tell anyone quite how much pleasure we taste when together we read poetry” (101). Some secrets are sweet.
     This Way Back would be a nourishing book to read at any time, but especially now, as we live through the longest nights, waiting for light. If we’re lucky, we’re holed up at home, sick of Zoom, missing many of the people we love. Eleftheriou is an erudite, down-to-earth, witty, and earnest guide through terrain that manages to be both familiar and fascinating to her. Come, let us walk the road together. 


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You can find Nicole Sheets in Spokane, Washington, and on Twitter (@heynicolesheets). She sporadically edits an online anthology of creative nonfiction called How to Pack for Church Camp.

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